The Mary Tyler Moore Show
She made it after all in
You’re gonna make it after all. These words bring to mind images of Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat in the air. Yet, when The Mary Tyler Moore Show aired for the first time, in September 1970, the lyrics were the more cautious You might just make it after all. In season two, singer-songwriter Sonny Curtis would make a few changes to the song he had written for the show. But for the first season, CBS was wary. When the producers, Jim Brooks and Allan Burns, met with CBS, the network executives categorically refused that the heroine, Mary Richards, was divorced. “The audience will think she divorced Dick Van Dyke!” one of them said.
Both parties finally agreed on a compromise: Mary wouldn’t be divorced, but would have broken up with her boyfriend. In the pilot, it was hinted that she had supported him through medical school, implying they were “living in sin.” At first, the executives were also opposed to divulging Mary’s age — thirty — arguing that Lucille Ball never said her age.
When the show started, Mary Tyler Moore had to prove she could be more than Laura Petrie from The Dick Van Dyke Show. With the character of Mary Richards, she made the viewers forget about the influential show of the early 1960s where she starred as Dick Van Dyke’s wife. The world had changed since the premiere of that series nine years earlier, but at CBS, not that much. It was on the edge to evolve, however. The Mary Tyler Moore Show would pave the way to audacious shows. In 1973–74, the network would have “the greatest Saturday night TV line-up in history” with All In The Family, M.A.S.H., The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show offered a fresh view. Following the lead of That Girl, which was in its last season when MTM started, it was nonetheless different. Wittier and more provocative, the show proved that a woman could be single and not long for a husband. Mary lived in a small but beautiful apartment in a Victorian house, and the wood M hung on the wall was the symbol of her independence. Contrary to her best friend Rhoda (Valerie Harper), who deplored not being married, Mary thrived in her personal life. However, it was harder at her job as an executive-producer at the TV station WJM, where she had to stand up to her grumpy boss, Lou Grant (Ed Asner). During their first uncomfortable meeting, Lou asked Mary indiscreet questions, like what religion she was.
Mary: “Mr. Grant, I don’t quite know how to say this, but you’re not allowed to ask that when someone’s applying for a job. It’s against the law.”
Lou: “Wanna call a cop?”
Lou: “Good. Would you think I was violating your civil rights if I asked if you’re married?”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show had the highest percentage of female writers for a TV show. Perhaps it was the reason it sounded so true to the audience, especially to the women who could identify with Mary, and the others who dreamed of an independent life like the one she was leading. Not an easy life, but one fulfilled with her own needs, centered on little pleasures, work, and friendships. The dialogues were clever and sprinkled with subtle criticism toward the society, which, in 1970, was still conservative on many levels.
“Phyllis: [to Mary and Rhoda] I thought I’d see how you swingin’ singles spend your evenings!”
Rhoda: They’re not much different than yours. We sit around at night wondering what it’d be like to have a happy marriage.”
Mary’s perfection could have been intimidating, but the beautiful and flawed Rhoda balanced things. In an episode of season 3, Put On A Happy Face, everything went wrong for Mary. She sprained her foot, caught a cold, and without a date for The Teddy Awards, she had to go with Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), wearing an old-fashioned dress, and with messy hair because her hair-dryer had broken. At this moment, Mary was the most touching. She was not perfect, after all. In this episode, Rhoda appeared like the steady one. And as always, she had a killer line: “Remember what my mother always says: ‘There are millions of children in Europe who would be thrilled to sit around and have the flu in a gorgeous room like this!’”
When Valerie Harper left the show in 1974 to have her spinoff, the public followed, and the episode of her wedding with Joe Gerard is one of the most watched in history, with over fifty million viewers. Yet, after the wedding, Jim Brooks and Allen Burns thought Rhoda had lost her edge. “When Rhoda got married, it was a disaster,” Gloria Banta, writer for the show, said. “It just changed everything. It changed her personality. Suddenly, the show was hard to write.” Proof of the evolution of the television world since 1970, Rhoda eventually got divorced, hoping to improve the series.
Meanwhile, The Mary Tyler Moore Show invented its own genre and pushed forward the traditional sitcom format that had prevailed since the early 1950s It created an eccentric world with a bunch of paradoxical characters like Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), the nymphomaniac Happy Homemaker, and the perfectionist yet troubled Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman).
The show was filled with heartwarming moments, swaying between humor and emotions. In the first episode of season 6, Mary, Lou, Ted and Murray (Gavin MacLeod) ended up in a bar after a terrible day. Ted told a bad knock-knock joke about Anna Maria Alberghetti in a taxi, honey. Mary was the only one to laugh, and the episode closed with all of them singing The Darktown Strutters Ball. Another wonderful moment is in Chuckles Bites The Dust, an episode classified as one of the greatest of all time. Lou Grant said, “We laugh at death because we know death will have the last laugh on us.”
When The Mary Tyler Moore Show finale aired in March 1977, the world had changed in seven years. The show didn’t end with Mary getting married or engaged. In fact, she didn’t even have a boyfriend. The finale was hard for the WJM staff. They all were fired by the new station manager who wanted to increase the ratings of the six o’clock news. Well, all of them but Ted, the anchorman, who couldn’t read the news without mispronouncing the words. It was not a happy-ending finale, but it was a brilliant and beautiful one. The emotions in that episode offered a heartbreaking yet sweet farewell. In the end, Mary was still an independent and strong woman. She made it, after all.